AHT as call center management evaluation metric

arrow green upMy article on Productivity resulted in quite some good comments. AHT as a metric is also discussed on other blogs. In this blog I further detail my arguments why I believe AHT is still a powerfull metric to track in Contact Center environments.

Focus on AHT can kill the Customer Experience

In general CSR’s behave as their bosses want them to behave. Meaning: If management’s sole focus is AHT you will see CSR’s do just that. And nothing more than that. You get what you deserve and it kills the Customer Experience.

I believe it is quite “dumb” to ask each and every CSR to have exactly the same AHT. This does not do right to the differences there are between human beings and converstations. Even dumber is to ask from agents that each call takes the same (short) time.

These are all examples and consequences of bad usage of a powerfull metric.

AHT used in context can be a powerful tool

Still I’m pro AHT as a good measurement tool in contact center environments, if used in the right context and with care.

My line of thinking in bullets:

  • High quality means a high consistency in quality (high likelyhood that each call shows same (high) level of service experience
  • If you want to be consistent in high level customer service experience you need to know exactly what you (through your CSR’s) need to deliver and how. You need to have a clear methodology.
  • You get this consistency through intense training and coaching of your CSR’s on the methodology (before that: make sure systems and authorisations are in place to deliver what you want delivered) and guard it through quality monitoring
  • The result is consistency in quality, execution (methodology) and therefore consistency in AHT
  • High AHT and Low AHT of an individual CSR is an indicator of poor quality delivery. Either knowledge or structure in conversation is bad, or CSR is rude and “cuts” calls. Both do not stick to the methodology and will not deliver the service experience you need.

Either way: both (groups of) CSR’s need attention. Not on AHT, but on Quality.

I ensure you: perform a correlation analysis between QM-results and AHT on all CSR data, and you will see what I saw: the correlation is (very) high.

Too many outliers says something about management too

High AHT-variance or -spread proves a lack of management capability to:

  • know what you need to deliver and how to do this most effectively
  • develop a clear methodology for flawless delivery of the desired service experience
  • explain, train and coach CSR’s in understanding and executing the methodology consistently

As an example I include two graphs to show what I mean. These graphs show on the X-ax: AHT-slots from lowest to highest. On the Y-ax: number of CSR’s that “perform” within a certain AHT-slot. The result: you get a nice view on how the spread of AHT is within your Contact Center. In both cases AHT is 285 seconds. You tell me which Contact Center is more likely to deliver consistent quality in service experience:


Bottom line 1: AHT-variance or spread metric is therefor also a management evaluation tool.

Bottom line 2: AHT can never be the #1 or only metric you use. Use it in the right context.

Productivity in Contact Centers – The dirty word –

small arrow green upThe mainstream discussion on the best way to reduce costs of customer services seems almost entirely focused on topics like Social Media, WOCAS, Voice of the Customer, Customer Experience and The best service is no Service. Nowhere in the discussion around quality up & costs down (which is the basic philosophy of any of the themes mentioned) driving productivity increase is mentioned in a positive way. Stronger even: quite often we see the argument that one should focus on the effectiveness of Customer Care processes and not on the productivity of the transaction. One could say that Productivity is The Dirty Word of today’s word of mouth around Customer Care & Customer Contact.

I would like to argue here that productivity management is as much a tool for quality management as is quality monitoring. If executed in the right way productivity management can contribute as much to decreasing volume as self-service-robots. I even dare to state that productivity management is the cheapest and fastest way to get better results on First Contact Resolution, Customer Satisfaction and Customer Experience.

Why? In my blog “How do I understand Why” I stated: “CEM (Customer Experience Management) is about taking it back to where it all starts: The Customer places a Call.….And ask yourself: WHY?” The same applies here:

Productivity is about taking it back to where it all starts: The Customer places a Call…. And ask yourself: WHY does it take so long (on average, because that is what we contact center professionals look at) ?

Again this question is rarely easily answered. At best there is some form of skill-based routing (do not overdo that) and few fully multi-skilled agents. This enables the organisation to assess what type of contacts (and processes/customer experiences driving these contacts) are complex, take more time to handle and would require improvement first (on experience, quality and productivity). Also most contact centers do not have fully multi-channel CTI-connected and integrated systems which would enable full contact type productivity analysis on an individual level.

To cut it short: In main-stream contact center-life there is very little insight in the reasons why AHT/productivity is what it is. The result of which is that contact centers managers continuously have to explain why it has gone up over that week, month etc etc. And of course they hardly ever have good founded answers and start tracking ICT-problems and other department failures and alike to cover their [Dirty Word Here].  That’s part of the reason why productivity management is the pain in the [DWH] of today’s customer care and contact center business. Other reasons are: Productivity management is not sexy & Productivity management is not making you popular and liked.

Why is Productivity Management the cheapest and fastest way to increasing quality?

In my humble opinion and experience there is a clear relation between customer satisfaction and the average length of a call. In my past experience as Business Unit Manager of a Contact Center Outsourcing Service Provider I was, among other Clients, responsible for a part of the first and second line tech support for one of the world’s leading Game consoles. I say part, because this business is multi-vendor outsourced as well as multi-regional executed within my former company.  There was a very clear focus from the Client on Customer Satisfaction (top 2 Box on a scale of 9) and First Contact Resolution (measured by customer feedback). Because of the multi-regional set-up there was intensive (healthy) competition and best practice sharing between the sites. In the last year I worked for this company my location showed best (above target) CSAT (and almost on target FCR)  results throughout the entire year worldwide. At the same time our AHT was lowest within the company I worked for.

This “proof” brought me to dig into the details and I discovered that not only AHT was lower on overall average, but at the same time the variance in AHT between the different agents was much smaller compared to the other projects running on “my” site. When I asked the responsible manager(s) to explain to me what, in their opinion, made the difference it became clear to me: Productivity management is not about managing AHT, it is (again) about managing the way the agent approaches the call and guides the customer through the process of problem/question resolution. If you know what makes a good call (and really it is not about mentioning the customers name three or more times and also not about 6 critical errors out of 12 error opportunities) and you have the ability to teach and coach your agents how that is done, and you empower your agent with the right systems (access) and authority, you will get the shortest contact possible with the least risk of repeat calling This will also be the call with high customer satisfaction and good to great customer experience. Although the latter might be because others are not doing that well in general ;-)

A practical approach to improving productivity and increasing quality at the same time

To conclude what you could do to make quick and cheap results on quality and productivity with one and the same measure:

  1. Get a list of all employees and their respective AHT and define the agents that have AHT > 15 % above overall AHT (do not be surprised if this is more than 30 % of you agent population)
  2. If possible cross-check (and correlate) with quality monitoring results (and you will establish the correlation yourself)
  3. If monitoring results are not available start monitoring these agents and establish any gaps in knowledge or behaviour they have adopted that does not aid to delivering the best for your customer in a call
  4. Develop an awareness, training & coaching program focusedon How do I approach a call for this group only (at first, to keep it cheap and quick) and train on any knowledge gap if applicable.
  5. Train – Monitor+Coach – Monitor+Coach – Monitor+Coach – Train – Monitor+Coach with high intensity for several weeks to a few months and you will see:  quality monitoring results will go up and AHT (for the respective agent and overall) will start dropping significantly. At the same time you should be able to track a drop in repeat traffic (if the agent group you are attacking is of a significant size and takes a significant number of calls of course).

What you should keep in mind:

  1. Do not make this program about AHT reduction for the agents involved (not even for the coaches/teamleads involved). Make it about improving their ability to help the customer in a pleasant, effective and efficient way and make it about customer satisfaction. 
  2. Your second step should not be about repeating the first, but about the agents with AHT more than 15 % below the overall average. You will definitely find some rotten apples in there that you need to get out too.
  3. When you do individual productivity analysis make sure to also keep track of hold-time. Excessive hold-time is a clear indicator that there is a lot of feedback asked from others (or time spend waiting for others to help) or that too much time is spend on performing analysis. In all cases there is a gap of knowledge you need to close.
  4. There will be hopeless cases: empower and support your team managers to get the best out of everyone, but you should also be willing and able to empower to lay-off someone (which might be legally easy outside Europe, but not in most countries inside Europe) even if this will cost you some.

To conclude: you can start with this today, do not spend lot’s of money on (selecting) new systems, but focus on the customer experience that counts: The Call with the Customer.

Have fun, and please share your thoughts/experiences.